“Death in his grave” is loosely inspired by Steve Turners Poem “The Morning That Death Was Killed” and the folk song “Jesse James”. “Jesse James” was originally recorded in 1924 by Bascom Lamar Lunsford but later versions by Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan sometimes included Judas in place of Robert Ford and Jesus as Jesse James.
Here is an excerpt of the Jesus / Judas version:
Jesus was a man, a carpenter by hand
His followers true and brave
One dirty little coward called Judas Iscariot
Has laid Jesus Christ in His Grave
I liked the idea of writing a similar song about Jesus and Death. I felt strongly that I wanted to write a whole song around the line “The Man Jesus Christ laid death in his grave”. It sounded like a great idea, but honestly, I almost didn’t finish this song because the weight of this subject matter. Plus I wanted to make it somewhat accessible without making light of the issues or coming across as trite. Still I knew this song belonged on “The Medicine” and through much blood and frustration I hammered it out.
There are 3 different types of language used when writing a song of this particular subject matter. There is theological language, common language, and poetical language. I enjoyed incorporating all 3 kinds of language in the writing of this song. The song has strong theological implications. At times it directly references scripture, however it’s not a sermon. It’s poetry (as a song should be) and uses quite a bit of simile and metaphor as well as certain instances of personification. People who have a “hang up” with this song generally do so because they either don’t like, or don’t understand the personification of the earth, death, sun and moon etc. I understand if people don’t fancy these elements but there is no good reason not to use them. After all, the Psalms, which I’ve always understood to be our blue print for these types of expressions, are chocked full of poetic language. Check out Psalm 19 for a great example of personification.
One other hang up people may have with this song is the colloquial feel of the lyrics. I purposely wanted this song to feel old and I thought a good way of accomplishing this was to use some older southern mannerisms. Once again I understand why people wouldn’t “get” this, but Jesus had no problem using colloquial phrases in his own stories and addresses so I didn’t feel like there was any reason to abstain from these myself.
Here is a breakdown of what I may have been thinking about and feeling while I wrote these words.
Though the earth cried out for blood
The earth or “the world” speaks of the gravity of all things temporary and the sin that binds us to a dying universe. Paul tells the Ephesians “you were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world“ (Eph 2:2)
The “course of this world” is a course that is passing away and by clinging to the things of it, we too are destined to pass away with it. This idea of “the world” is what the apostle John speaks of overcoming by faith in 1 John 5.
The earth is also where our bodies return when they die. The world is unforgiving, unrelenting, and cold. For these reasons I decided to personify the Earth (aka the grave) as a hungry person or animal with an insatiable appetite for the souls of men.
satisfied her hunger was
When the blood of Jesus fell upon the earth and his body was placed inside of it (the tomb), he paid our passage from this passing world to the eternal world and created a “new and living way” (Heb 10:20).
I felt an interesting illustration of this could be to personify the earth as tasting perfection in the blood of it’s creator thus no longer desiring lesser blood, or the grave having eaten its fill in the sinless body of Christ. Certainly our mortal bodies still go into the earth, but because the blood of Jesus satisfied the demands of the law, we are no longer subject to the gravity that binds us to the eternal consequences of sin.
Her billows calmed on raging seas, for the souls of men she craved
I wanted to touch on the fact that the earth itself awaits it’s own redemption and even groans like a woman in labor in expectation of that time (Rom 8). It’s like creation could see an end to this agony through the blood its own creator shed to reverse the effects of “the fall” that had thrown it into utter chaos and disrepair. Obviously there are still storms and the world is still a dangerous place, but the Bible speaks of a day when the lion and the lamb will lay together and children will play beside cobras. This ultimate peace is the end result of the sacrifice of Jesus.
Sun and moon, from balcony turned their head in disbelief
Their precious love would taste the sting disfigured and disdained
The Bible talks about the sky going dark when Jesus was crucified. I saw this like the heavens turning their eyes at the sight of what was happening to the center of their very universe. Almost like one part of creation sickened at the sight of another part of creation destroying the one they had been created “by, through and for”.
“Disfigured” and “disdained” are words used to describe the literal event taking place during crucifixion.
On Friday a thief on Sunday a king
Jesus obviously wasn’t a thief, but he was crucified between 2 thieves and thus treated like a thief on one day yet risen as a king only a few days later. I wanted this line to express the contrast between the 2 perceptions of Jesus that changed so quickly in a short amount of time. The colloquialism allows for a little exaggeration and helps me make this contrast more apparent.
Laid down in grief but awoke with the keys to hell on that day
Once again, more contrast, but this time playing on what Jesus says of himself in Revelation 1:18: “I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.”
First born of the slain
In Revelation 5 Jesus is called the “the firstborn from the dead”. In Romans 8:29 he is called the “first born among many brethren”. This says to me that in resurrection Jesus become not only our redeemer but also our new model. He is the first of the ‘new creation’.
“But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.” (Rom 8:8)
I love the implications of these verses. Plus slain rhymes with grave, which is important.
The man Jesus Christ
“For if many people died as the result of one man’s offense, how much more has God’s grace and the free gift given through the kindness of one man, Jesus Christ, been showered on many people!”
It is important that we understand the humanity of Jesus. Jesus lived like we live, and felt like we feel. He was “tempted in every way”. He suffered like a man and he felt sorrow as well as joy. Most significantly, he died like a man. Jesus regularly referred to himself as the “son of man” because I think he felt it was important for us to know that we have a God who can sympathize with our infirmities (Heb 4:15). I believe Jesus was both completely God and completely man. I believe he knows us, not just because he created us, but because, in many ways, he is us. I am NOT, in any way, saying “we are God” but I am saying that God lived as we lived.
Laid death in his grave
I love irony. It was in the death of Jesus that death itself died. A man named Joseph laid Jesus in his tomb, but it was Jesus who would ultimately put death itself away for evermore. Some people sing this line as though death was left in Jesus’ own tomb, but I always thought of it as Jesus laying death in the grave. Putting death away for good.
So 3 days in darkness slept the morning sun of righteousness
In Revelation Jesus calls himself the “Bright and Morning Star”. I wanted to paint this picture of a new day dawning and Jesus rising from the darkness of the grave like the sun rises from the darkness of the horizon.
But rose to shame the throes of death and overturn his rule
I liked the illustration of death personified as a tyrannical ruler to whom Jesus came to over throw.
Now daughters and the sons of men would pay not their dues again
The debt of blood they owed was rent when the day rolled a new
The “debt of blood” refers to the blood sacrifice that men and women were previously required by law to offer for sin, but also to the idea that a person would pay for their time on earth by their own death. Jesus paid the debt we owed, and became the blood sacrifice upon the alter of all time. This is the blood that Paul said is more powerful than the blood of animals and to attempt to pay for our own sins again would be like trampling the blood of Jesus under foot.
He has cheated hell
This is more Colloquialism. In the south, when something doesn’t work out the way we expect we often say “we’ve been cheated”. Also there is the expression “to cheat death” which means to have a close call. With Jesus it was more than close, but I like the way the word “cheated” sounds rude when pertaining to death. I like the idea of Jesus turning his nose up at the whole situation and making an open spectacle of this tyrant.
And seated us above the fall
“even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus”
Earlier in Ephesians, Paul says that Jesus sits above all principality and power. If we have been made to sit with Jesus, then we too sit above every dominion, every influence, and every circumstance.
In desperate places he paid our wages
Referring to Romans 6:23 “The wages of sin is death but…”
One time once and for all
“Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. 10For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God.”
This line needs little interpretation in my opinion.
(After posting this yesterday I wanted to add this note to clarify a couple things)
A note on the songwriting process:
Some people have ask was I really thinking about all this when I wrote the song? My short reply would be “no”, but a more accurate answer would have to be more like something I heard Springsteen say one time: “I wasn’t thinking about any of it but I was feeling every bit of it!”